NY Times 'Uses' Scare 'Quotes' To Highlight How 'They' Don't 'Understand' How Snowden 'Copied' Documents

from the wtf? dept

One of the interesting things in watching the reporting on various Snowden documents, is that a variety of publications have been bringing on actual technology and security experts to help with the reporting. The Guardian has been working with Bruce Schneier. The Washington Post has been working with Ashkan Soltani. Jacob Appelbaum has worked with Der Spiegel. However, it appears that the NY Times is above little things like actually talking to “experts.” And that’s why tons of folks spent the weekend laughing at the NY Times’ latest reporting on how Ed Snowden got access to various documents, in which they use bizarre scare quotes around perfectly ordinary words, more or less emphasizing what the reporters clearly don’t understand:

Intelligence officials investigating how Edward J. Snowden gained access to a huge trove of the country’s most highly classified documents say they have determined that he used inexpensive and widely available software to “scrape” the National Security Agency’s networks, and kept at it even after he was briefly challenged by agency officials.

Using “web crawler” software designed to search, index and back up a website, Mr. Snowden “scraped data out of our systems” while he went about his day job, according to a senior intelligence official.

Lots of people who read this started quickly mocking it online. Matt Blaze joked about the fact that children (children!) might download wget:

Chris Soghoian pointed out that a sys admin knowing how to use a web scraper is not news, let alone front page NY Times news.

But, perhaps the most entertaining mocking came from Marc Andreessen who rattled off a series of similar sounding lines with scare quotes that might highlight how silly the NYT report sounds to anyone even marginally familiar with technology.

The NY Times has a bunch of the Snowden documents. It might be a good idea for them to reach out to someone who actually understands technology before reporting on any more of them.

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Comments on “NY Times 'Uses' Scare 'Quotes' To Highlight How 'They' Don't 'Understand' How Snowden 'Copied' Documents”

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61 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

'Cooking' spaghetti

1. First, take a ‘pot’, and fill it with ‘water’.
2. Put the ‘pot’ on the ‘stove’, and turn the ‘heat’ up to ‘boiling’.
3. Once the ‘water’ is ‘boiling’, dump in the ‘noodles’, and let them cook until ‘soft’.
4. ‘Drain’ the ‘water’ out, and add your ‘sauce’ of choice, stirring until it’s well ‘mixed’.
5. Serve with a sprinkling of shredded ‘cheese’, and a slice of ‘garlic’ ‘bread’.
6. ‘Enjoy’.

halley (profile) says:

Fun to laugh but it’s really pretty silly to assume the NYT is the uneducated party. I just take it as the NYT introducing vocabulary to a readership that won’t know these terms.

When talking about 3D printing, the big story was whether you could download a gun. Terms like “sintering” and “lower receiver” may be obvious to 3D hobbyists and gun enthusiasts, but not to most of the Times’ readership. Remember the breadth of the readership of the New York Times isn’t just skinny-tie-wearing technology types, but they do comprise a portion of the electorate.

Now, some people don’t need quotes around novel jargon (I identified and figured out the jargon “A1” all by myself without them), but the NYT may have a style guide that favors them. No big deal.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If they’re really worried about their readership not understanding the words used, then they should make a note of it and include a little section describing what the terms mean, so people can refer to that when reading.

Would take a minimal amount of work to do, make the article more valuable to those that would otherwise skip over it due to the technical jargon being over their head, and would avoid situations like this, where they find themselves mocked for appearing to be trying to make the mundane look complicated.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I was thinking include a little sidebar off to the side of the story, that would include the word/phrase in question, along with a little description of what it meant/involved, so if people were confused they could just check that.

Of course, that’s with a paper newspaper, online would be even easier, just include either the same sidebar, or have the words in question link to a page of definitions/explanations.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Fun to laugh but it’s really pretty silly to assume the NYT is the uneducated party. I just take it as the NYT introducing vocabulary to a readership that won’t know these terms.

If the NYT knew what it meant, this wouldn’t have been a front page story. The point isn’t just the scare quotes, but the fact that this is not a newsworthy story. OMG, he used the tools everyone assumed he used because those are the tools everyone used!

It would be like the NYT writing an article excitedly highlighting that it’s now been discovered that Snowden “emailed” the “reporters” he spoke to.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I agree that it’s silly for the NYT to think that a $120K/year sys admin using tools like wget to pull information from their system is silly and definitely not news. However, I’m not sure that I agree the quotes were intended to be scare quotes. I can see how they can be interpreted that way but I think it was intended to point out the specific terminology that the government source used when speaking to the reporter. I think it really shows more what contempt the government officials have for the public than anything else. Sys admins are are SUPPOSED to use these sorts of tools to move files around and make backups of things. It’s part of their job. The only part that is not part of the job is that he took them home and then leaked them. It’s the government officials that are pretending that using the tools in the first place is something shocking. The only part that I really fault the NYT for is aiding them in their hyperbole.

Donglebert the Needlessly Obtuse says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If the quotes were not supposed to be scare quotes, then they’re at least guilty of really bad writing. Using unnecessary jargon isn’t helpful, with or without a sidebar to explain. That paragraph should be simply “Snowden used commonly available software tools to make wholesale copies of NSA computer drives”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I agree. It could have been written much better. I think they are trying to convey the language that the government officials are using which includes some negatively charged words. Consider this perspective. The government official uses the word “scraping” in his description of what happened. Consider the first sentence from the article if I remove the quotes from the work “scrape”:

Intelligence officials investigating how Edward J. Snowden gained access to a huge trove of the country?s most highly classified documents say they have determined that he used inexpensive and widely available software to scrape the National Security Agency?s networks, and kept at it even after he was briefly challenged by agency officials.

If the writer doesn’t use quotes on the word then the reader will think the word was chosen by the writer in what otherwise is a paraphrased sentence when in actuality the word being used is the word the government official used to describe his actions.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“I just take it as the NYT introducing vocabulary to a readership that won’t know these terms.”

Yes, because when you put “quotes” around a term your “readers” don’t understand, that magically lets them know what it “means”. Actually “defining” those “terms” isn’t “necessary”.

The only purpose that this sort of quoting can possibly serve is to make them seem scary. There’s a reason they’re called “scare quotes”.

Vidiot (profile) says:

Why am I not outraged?

It’s true that the Grey Lady is notorious for its condescending tone; but remember that the Times’ audience is broad and often non-technical. In terms of literary style, it’s common to set off unfamiliar jargon with quotes; or, as in this case, words that have taken on a secondary, non-intrinsic meaning… “scrape”, a physical action, is used descriptively here to avoid an even starchier, longer, more obtuse description. Yes, I really believe that a significant part of the readership has no idea about web crawlers and scraping, and that the quotes are correct usage for a non-technical audience. And to snicker and point at non-insiders, mocking their pathetic ignorance of specialized terms, makes us look like even bigger idiots.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why am I not outraged?

Whether the NY Times’ audience is non-technical is irrelevant.* Scare quotes aren’t some ELI5 device. It was sloppy and lazy writing.

* And I’d argue the audience if plenty technical. The comments to the NY Times’ stories are almost always more insightful than the articles themselves. The Times has the best educated audience in the world, next to pure academic journals.

Anonymous Coward says:

ZOMG the command line!

An entire generation of computer users are hopelessly lost without a GUI — which is a pity, but does explain why anything involving the command line is considered arcane voodoo by much of the public.

I frequently deal with reasonably well-educated people who are flat-out stunned when I begin diagnosing a problem by opening up an xterm on a Linux box and using tail, grep, and other common Unix utilities. And if I roll out something like find /var/log -type f -a -mtime -1 -print then they’re convinced I’m a wizard…even though, not that many years ago, that was considered a rather pedestrian sysadmin skill.

Can you imagine how they’d react to tcpdump or nmap?

Brian Weeden (profile) says:

NSA has already admitted it was his job to crawl

What’s really crazy is that the NSA has come out and said that it was Snowden’s job to copy all the files off their internal wiki. It’s in the interview on this page with Lonny Anderson, Chief of the NSA’s Technology Directorate:

http://www.lawfareblog.com/the-lawfare-podcast/inside-nsa-we-brought-in-a-recording-device-so-you-dont-have-to

So for anonymous sources to go to the NYT and other publications and claim that he used all these tools and did nefarious things is just part of their smear campaign. In crawling their internal network was doing exactly what he was told to do for his job.

ECA (profile) says:

When was the last time..

when was the last time a NEWS agency JUST reported facts/news… and not opinion?

HE was an ADMIN..he had tons of access…which was his JOB. keeping things organized and CLEANED UP.. Making things work, and so forth.
If they were STUPID enough not to encode anything on the system, it was fair game.

WE are talking about a group(CIA/FBI/any 3 letter group) that is sending data in a BASIC FORMAT.

IMHO..
I get the feeling that this is a SCAM against other countries. A bunch of Random data and a few tidbits, to see WHO jumps on their system.

FM Hilton (profile) says:

So that's why

The NY Times wants to be considered the leading newspaper in the country, but their technology knowledge is next to nothing?

There used to be (don’t know if there still is-possibly cut)a section that dealt solely with technology, computers and all that high end stuff.

They should have turned the article over to them and had them write it in terms of simple intelligence.

But as news, it wasn’t. A sys admin knows all the tricks, and that’s one of the basic tools of the trade.

Nothing new under the sun, but then again, they’re in it for the scare-mongering factor, too.

Just because they have some of the documents doesn’t mean they’re not on the side of the government.

They’re just tools for the propaganda machine called the NSA.

Anonymous Coward says:

IMHO, Yes, it’s a tempest in a teapot. You know it, I know it, and most “experts” know it. Joe Sixpack DOES NOT know it, nor does he understand it. The NYT apparently put this out, in this form, KNOWING that the general public would take it at face value, because it’s the New York Times so it MUST be true. The NYT knew exactly what they were doing. They’re not stupid, or that careless. They’re still trying to drum up anti-Snowden sentiment. I’ll leave the who-asked-them-to question as an exercise for the reader.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think they are trying to “anti-Snowden sentiment” so much as looking to run a sensationalistic story based on a few charged words that a government official said to them about it. After all, the editorial board did release that article where they basically said that the government is off base which wouldn’t be in line with your claim.

airdrummer (profile) says:

go "snark" urself

i’ve used wget to produce cd versions of classified databases for distribution to sites that necessarily didn’t have connectivity, so i know what “scrape” means in that context.

but most people are familiar with the common connotationb of “scraping” a fender, so the nyt was entirely justified in using quotes.

mocking the nyt is typical of geeks’ “arrogance” & “disdain” they hold for “muggles” so “stfu”

istolethis (from teh web) says:

but quotes? or "scare" quotes?

NYT cares not if they frighten their readership.

A newly coined word is called a neologism.

See, we don’t need quotes to introduce a new term.

The skeptical author can prefix a special term with so-called. That would indicate derision, non-standard usage, abnormal or different in a somewhat threatening way.

Social activists might call it lexical Othering.

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